As she was writing and recording, "it really seemed like my world was getting smaller and closing in around me at the same time that things were changing so fast. I couldn't keep up with it. It was the best year for me because my son was born and the worst year for me seeing so many Tamil people being killed. And then it was the best year for me because I found someone to settle down with, then the worst year because I couldn't leave [due to visa restrictions] and my mum couldn't come and see me. My album came out like that because that's how it was."
Interscope executive VP of marketing and publicity Dennis Dennehy says the label sees no problem working with that complicated message. "The biggest artists in music are never not provocative," he says. "It's who she is, and it's what makes her appealing. It's what draws you in."
"She's a controversial artist, and she always has been," senior director of marketing Dyana Kass adds. "That's nothing new. When she does something it makes noise." With regard to the New York Times fallout, "people are paying attention to her who might not have been already," Kass continues. "That is what it is."
Dennehy calls "/\/\ /\ Y /\" a "classic case of artist development, where she's built an audience over time that's now ready for that record where an artist really captures a moment." XL Recordings chief Richard Russell, who oversees M.I.A.'s releases in the United Kingdom, agrees: "If you listen to her three albums, she's gotten better with every record."
Better or not, there's no doubting that the new set is poised to make a bigger impact out of the gate than "Kala" did. "The anticipation is through the roof," says M.I.A.'s publicist, Jennie Boddy, who's now managing her client's career as well. "Whether they agree or disagree with what she says, people are interested. It's an exciting moment."
According to Kass, Interscope's rollout "is about trying to figure out who that consumer is and where they live and breathe. We're really trying to drill down into what the picture of her audience is and make sure that everything we do feels authentic to her." Kass says all of M.I.A.'s original fans-"the tastemaker community, the world-music enthusiasts, the fashionistas"-have stuck with her, but that the success of "Paper Planes" "obviously opened her up to a much larger audience. So it's a matter of making sure we're covering that base while also making sure the new consumer is aware of the campaign."
The label made its first move in April at Coachella, where a blimp circled the sky above the festival's grounds announcing the upcoming release. "That seemed like a good place to start," Kass says, "with a nice cross-section of her audience." Then M.I.A. premiered on her website the video for "Born Free," an exceedingly violent nine-minute short film directed by Romain Gavras, the son of director Costa-Gavras. The video, banned from YouTube, "did exactly what it was meant to do: Get out there and get people talking," Kass says.
In yet another sign of the incongruity that defines "/\/\ /\ Y /\," the video for "XXXO" was recently shot by Hype Williams, the rap-video auteur behind such high-gloss clips as Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" and the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Mo Money Mo Problems." "When I was like, 'I want Hype to shoot the video,' everybody was like, 'No way-he's a nightmare!' " M.I.A says. "But he was amazing to work with." She adds that "it was interesting to take someone like Hype and mash him up with my aesthetic, just because it's so far removed. Sometimes when you do that you get some interesting shit, and I think the 'XXXO' video is going to be the perfect balance of both worlds."
A Jay-Z remix of "XXXO" is also nearing completion, an element Kass says the label plans to "go everywhere" with prior to the album's release date. (She expects the video to premiere on a yet-to-be-determined outlet toward the end of June.) Additionally, M.I.A. is scheduled to appear July 13 on "Late Show With David Letterman" and July 14 on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon."
In the retail space, "/\/\ /\ Y /\" will arrive in the 12-song standard edition as well as in a deluxe package with a lenticular cover and four extra tracks, including a Blaqstarr-produced slow jam called "Caps Lock" that Mark Williams says "shows off an entirely different side of Maya."
Although the placement of "Paper Planes" in a trailer for the Seth Rogen comedy "Pineapple Express" fueled much of that song's success, Boddy says licensing doesn't occupy a significant portion of Maya's focus. "She considers things depending on whether or not they fit within her moral-scape and her aesthetic," the manager says. " 'Paper Planes' was only in the trailer; it wasn't in the movie. She'd want to see the scene, to see if her song fit in context. If the other party is open to doing something that's not status quo, then she's open to it. But it has to be a discussion."